Heddy Honigmann’s undeniably ambitious documentary Oblivion takes viewers on a tour of modern Peru, as seen through the eyes of a handful of Lima citizens who’ve survived decades of social and political change. Part travelogue, part character sketch, and part historical essay, Oblivion balances lengthy interviews with lingering shots of street performers and service-folk going about their daily routine. Some of Honigmann’s subjects know each other; most don’t. But while regimes changed and economic recovery plans collapsed, these Peruvians continued to wake up in their hillside slums every morning and make their way into the city to punch in.
But as with Honigmann’s previous film, Forever—which took a similar approach to combining monologues and quiet reflection—Oblivion starts to lose its sense of surprise after a few iterations of the formula. Though the “history in the voice of the people” format has its advantages, Honigmann’s shunning of such journalistic niceties as statistics and detailed timelines strips a lot of her subjects’ anecdotes of context. As a result, what they say and do for Honigmann’s camera comes off as too stagy. When one bartender gives a lecture at a catering school about proper public service, his speech so strongly parallels the criticism of past Peruvian governments that the moment isn’t as resonant as it should be. The speech feels like it was written for him to read.
Still, Oblivion contains more than its share of indelible images and memorable characters. Most of Honigmann’s interviewees start off stiff, holding to a blandly positive view of Peru, but when asked direct questions, they loosen up considerably. A tailor who fashions presidential sashes rolls his eyes at the crooks he’s decorated, a server in a swanky establishment recalls a minister of finance who didn’t know the cost of everyday products and services, and so on. And though Honigmann overdoes the slice-of-life scenes, it’s consistently heartbreaking to watch little girls earn money by doing handstands and cartwheels in front of stopped cars. And it’s hard to deny the poetic and symbolic power of one long sequence in which a street juggler takes a long walk up a steep hill to a collapsing hovel that seems hardly worth his effort.